Cape Breton Highlands National Park is one of Canada’s top treasures. On the northern tip of Nova Scotia, this park is full of incredible campgrounds, hiking trails, beaches, and more. If you’re into camping and hiking, a trip to Cape Breton isn’t complete without Fishing Cove and the Cabot Trail. With 8 reservable campsites, Fishing Cove is the only backcountry campground in the park (Don’t forget your permit!).
A place of perfect solitude—with the ocean, forest, and mountains.
Last October, I visited Cape Breton Island for the first time ever. It may seem strange that a native Nova Scotian took 28 years to make it to the island—but again, my family didn’t travel much. But like many Bluenosers, I did develop an appreciation for the cultural influence of the Scottish and Irish—namely, Celtic music! My week on Cape Breton ended with foot-stompin’ tunes at the Celtic Colours International Music Festival in Sydney.
I can’t imagine a better time to visit Canada’s Top Island Travel Destination. By October, the bright yellows, oranges, and reds sweep the changing forests. It’s enough to bring tourists from all over, to enjoy the Cabot Trail and the music festival. One of the most remarkable places in the world, right here in my home province. Plus, visiting in the fall means fewer tourists and more campsite options (but come prepared, as it does get a wee bit chilly).
I started my trip around the Cabot Trail in Ingonish and ventured counter-clockwise, exploring bits and pieces along the way. If you’re searching for fall foliage, the eastern side of the island boasts brighter fall colours; but the western half had more spectacular ocean views.
About Fishing Cove Trail in Cape Breton Highlands National Park
Location: Cape Breton Island National Park
Distance: 12 km out and back
Difficulty: Moderate due to length and slippery sections (especially after rain)
Elevation: 355 m gain
Time: Approx. 5-6 hours
Features: Fishing Cove trail follows the Fishing Cove River through the forest and down to the campground. There are 8 reservable campsites with wooden platforms for tents. The campground is nestled in the beautiful cove. Fishing Cove was once home to Scottish immigrants arriving in the 1700-1800s. By 1915, descendants of these early settlers had dispersed to other communities and left this coastal plot behind. I could almost hear the bagpipes from days gone by!
Hiking Down to Fishing Cove Backcountry Campground
The trail for Fishing Cove Campground is found on the western side of Cape Breton’s Cabot Trail. You can find the trailhead on Google maps. The trailhead is well-marked with a parking lot and signs. The 6 kilometre trail follows the Fishing Cove River the entire length of the trail.
Tenting at Fishing Cove in Cape Breton Highlands National Park
There are 8 reservable sites at Fishing Cove. At the beginning of my Cabot Trail journey, I stopped at the Ingonish Visitor Centre to purchase my backcountry permit for Fishing Cove. From the other direction, permits can be picked up at Chéticamp Visitor Centre.
After leaving MacIntosh Brook Campground, I arrived at the Fishing Cove trailhead later in the afternoon than anticipated. I was fortunate to have sunny skies all day. The trail is a gentle slope down to the cove and was very quiet, with one or two other hikers out for the day. When I arrived at camp, there was one other tent pitched (and they left early the next morning). The sites have wooden platforms for your tent.
This was my first time camping later in the fall season. It was so quiet. Most of the campgrounds in Cape Breton Highlands were nearly deserted. To be fair, the evenings were cooler and one night saw some frost. If you’re going to camp in the shoulder season, you gotta be prepared for cooler temperatures. I slept with warmer clothes, my toque, and my down sleeping bag rated for zero degrees. I was fairly comfortable but would have probably preferred a -7 degree sleeping bag.
Tenting at Fishing Cove in the summer months would be a lovely experience, I’m sure. But there was something almost mystical about experiencing this place on my own. In the morning, I left my tent and walked down to the shore. Side note: I’m an Outlander fan. The story-telling is fantastic, but, most of all, I’m enthralled by the Celtic music (Ok… and Jamie). As the sun peaked over the mountain in the morning, I listened to Bear McCreary’s Fraser’s Ridge and ate apple-cinnamon oatmeal from my Jetboil. It was heavenly.
I think the Cabot Trail in the summertime would also be a great experience. But I was really missing fall foliage. Alberta just doesn’t do autumn like the Maritimes.
Fishing Cove is a great spot for hikers of all skill levels and backgrounds. It’s worth the stop, but don’t rush the visit. It would be very doable to pack a picnic lunch—hike in the morning and out in the afternoon. If you’re looking for a quiet place to recharge overnight, this is one spectacular option. The Fishing Cove trail can easily be done as a day-trip, but I’d recommend spending the night if there’s room in your schedule. And in the fall, you don’t need bug spray—another bonus!
For more information on Fishing Cove, including a map of the campground, check out the Parks Canada website.